Jude Hardin

Author, Drummer, Turtle Whisperer

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Location: United States

Friday, March 02, 2007

Stormy Weather

I woke this morning to the sound of thunder. I looked out my window at the molten-lead sky, the fierce lightning flashes, the bleak landscape. It reminded me about how my life has been going this week, and it reminded me about adding inner conflict to my fictional characters.

To me, characters who are emotionally tortured ring truer than those whose lives are always golden.

Maybe you’re developing a character, or maybe you have a finished novel and are looking for ways to add texture. Either way, adding inner conflict is one of the best ways to garner reader sympathy. Readers relate to characters with emotional holes, because we all have them.

Let’s say for now that you’re developing a character. Let’s say his name is Bill.

Bill is a doctor. He’s 29 years old, sandy blond hair, blue eyes. He’s 6’2” tall, weighs 185 pounds, drives a Jaguar. He reminds people of a young Brad Pitt. He has money, looks, brains, and he’s great with the ladies. Great in bed. He graduated first in his class, publishes regularly in medical journals. He is articulate both professionally and casually. He’s funny, and a pleasure to hang with at cocktail parties.

Bill is boring me to tears, because he’s too friggin’ perfect.

Let’s take that same character and mess with his head a bit.

Let’s say he has a controlling father who steered him into medicine, while all Bill ever really wanted to do was build oak furniture. He loves the smell of sawdust mingled with his own sweat, the feel of the wood, the sound of a power saw. He loves the clean lines, the perfect joints, the simple and stout designs of Gustav Stickley, and would like nothing more than to emulate him. Stickley is his hero, and wood is his passion.

When he was 14, Bill went out to the garage and built a table from scraps while he was supposed to be doing his math homework. His father came home, took an axe to the table and burned it in the fireplace. After that, he beat Bill with a belt and made him stay up until 2:00 AM until his math was finished. No son of mine is going to be a fucking carpenter. I bust my ass every day so you can have a chance at a better life. You’re going to med school, and that’s that.

And that was that. Now Bill is stuck in a stressful career that he hates.

He’s all grown up now, so why doesn’t he just quit being a doctor and go make some furniture?

For one thing, he has a ton of student loans to pay back. He has a nice house and a nice car, and Dad would blow a gasket if he threw all that away and moved into a one-room flat. All his money goes to paying bills, with only a little left over for a retirement account. How can he start a woodshop with no capital? How can he sustain himself for several years until his furniture designs start making money?

He’s figured out that he will be forty before he has enough money to even think about quitting medicine. Eleven more years of this soul-sucking existence. And what about his fiancé? The wedding date has been set, and they both want kids, and she is in love with the idea of being married to a doctor. She doesn’t even know about his passion for wood. If Bill gets married and starts a family, how will he ever be able to get back to his true love?

Bill is very unhappy. He’s having bad headaches, and starts taking Percocets prescribed by a friend. When they stop working, he switches to Dilaudid. Now he’s hooked on painkillers, and has to take them all day every day just to function. The painkillers give him chronic constipation, so he has to take laxatives and enemas. He keeps everything a secret, can’t allow his fiancé and his parents to discover how weak he really is. He has a loaded pistol in his underwear drawer, and sometimes thinks about putting it in his mouth.

One night, he sneaks into the hospital’s pharmacy and steals a bottle of pills. He doesn’t know it, but the tech on duty sees him. Now Bill is getting anonymous letters, threatening to expose his theft and drug addiction if a certain amount of money isn’t coughed up every month.

Bill is a mess. At twenty-nine, he can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. What will become of him?

I’ll let you finish the story.

The thing is, by giving Bill an emotional hole, I’ve made him interesting. On the surface, he’s everybody’s golden boy. Underneath, he’s a complete wreck.

Do you have some characters who are just a little too perfect? Give them some inner conflicts, and see what happens.

I just looked out the window again, and it’s still dark and cloudy. The thunder and lightning have stopped, though, and surely the sun will eventually shine.

If you want to sell books, let it shine on your character in the end. At least one little ray of hope. Their inner conflicts will still be there, but maybe there’s a chance they will overcome them.




Blogger Kathy said...

Bland, Vanilla, Floating Down Stream...Nah! Life is full of spice--folks with no conscience or moral compass, people who hang onto obsessive revenge and those who refuse to take accept responsibility in and for their lives, recovering and wallowing addicts, hurt, fear, anger...these are things I strive to bring to life in my writing.

Great post, Jude!

5:45 PM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

Hey! You're over your postpartum depression and back out in the world destroying young doctors lives. Good stuff!

Seriously, I agree completely. If you don't give them obstacles to overcome and valid reasons for their hardships and hang-ups, ya got nothin'.

I agree with your final statement as well, I like to see a ray of sunshine at the end. Some would disagree, however. Ever read 'A Fine Balance'? (Rohinton M-something-er-other??? can't remember???) Anyhoo, the book got lots of talk in my circle, so I finally read it. 400 pages of abject misery. I just kept reading because I thought it couldn't get any worse. It did. It was more or less a study of: "If you think you've got it bad, check this guy out!"

Anyway, about that doctor. I'll take the first version, please. I'd ride off into the sunset with a young Brad Pitt look-a-like in a Jag. Even if he was boring. You did say he was good in bed, I'd find ways to amuse myself.
Where can I find him?

8:51 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Kathy,


Yep. giving a character warts and inner conflicts always adds dimensions.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


You were my ray of sunshine for today.

Thanks for the laugh!

4:36 PM  
Blogger Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Ahhhh, Jude's back!

Great post, bud. And so true.

In my world, a relatively "wholesome" environment, I still have to bring conflict to my characters' inner emotions. And, if that happens to be your style (not "your" style, I know your style and love it!), you can accomplish it without having to make them criminals or evil. In The Green Marble (coming out via Twilight Times Press in October, 2007), my protag is a recently retired family doctor. Seemingly successful, a beloved community member, resolved to deal with his wife's Multiple Sclerosis, still in love with her, and now consumed with his love of gardens and the chance to finally spent time in them... inside he's obsessed and guilt ridden over the unsolved disappearance of his brother, fifty years ago. As time goes on, the reader discovers that Sam was institutionalized as a child, and when a green marble starts to warm and glow in his hand, whisking him back to his childhood, he hides it from everyone, sure they'll put him back in the asylum. ;o)

It was really fun to write.

Thanks for the excellent motivation and chance to discuss writing. As always, you're right on.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Aaron!

The Green Marble sounds like a really cool story. Best of luck with it!

5:51 PM  

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